My journey from Lucy into Commercial Law

by Stephanie Ma on 22 May 2018


Stephanie Ma                                                                                                                                                                                              
BA Law, 2014

I read law at Cambridge for two years and I graduated from Lucy Cavendish College in 2014. Despite being in a mature college, which meant I had previously already pursued another degree or Stephanie Macareer before my attendance, I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in law. Lucy Cavendish was the community that would help me ease into the five-year plan of my early twenties.

I hail from Hong Kong, and I was old enough to separate my life in Hong Kong into pre and post-handover memories. As all of my formative years were spent there, after 14 years of Hong Kong education, I wanted to see the world. Really, what I wanted the most was to have the ‘American college experience’, so I decided to go UC Berkeley upon graduating from high school. I was in my third year (i.e. a ‘junior’) at Berkeley when I applied to Lucy Cavendish to read law. When I matriculated to Lucy Cavendish in 2012, I was a holder of undergraduate degrees in both Philosophy and Economics, but nonetheless was completely unprepared for the British education system. Culturally and philosophically the university cultures and education pedagogy are very different and I felt somewhat caught between the two. At Lucy, I spent two hardworking but wonderful years in Warburton Hall, living and eating in the same friendly red-brick building.

Despite being a philosophy graduate, I was actually very unprepared to read Law and was totally unfamiliar with the process of becoming a lawyer. In hindsight this was understandable, as the draw to Law was originally a romantic one. Like many before me, I was inspired to become a lawyer after watching Legally Blonde, the most successful legal recruitment video ever created. But unfortunately, I learned a little too late that it was only a recruitment video for a very specific type of lawyer, and unfortunately that was not the type I would end up becoming. There are two types of lawyers under the common law system: solicitors and barristers, and unfortunately the media only portrays (generally) the barrister as being an exciting legal career option.

The process of becoming a lawyer in the UK and HK is the same. For the type of lawyer I wanted to be, a solicitor, law students have to survive a gruelling process of finding a training contract. For Hong Kong-based training contracts, there is an added element of language comprehension that adds even more complexity to an already tough interview process. Thankfully however, the training contract recruitment process can also be an equalizing one. I had worked really hard to secure my upper second-class honours and, unfortunately for my peers who worked incredibly hard to receive first class honours, we ended up in the same interview rooms and assessment days.

I eventually landed myself a training contract at a firm that I am proud to call my parent firm, but the path was not an easy one. After Lucy Cavendish, I actually took a gap year before starting my legal training in Hong Kong. I decided to go to Beijing for a year to improve my general mandarin proficiency, so that I could jog my memory on a lot of the Chinese that I had forgotten. During that year, I experienced first-hand how the law could operate in different legal systems. One of the greatest challenges in legal education is trying to teach law students to understand the nuances in diverse legal systems and not to teach one as superior to the other. During my gap year, I had the opportunity to work in a mainland Chinese law firm and I got to see at first-hand how the civil legal system operated in China.

Because of my gap year in mainland China, I often find myself having discussions on the contrasting legal systems between common and civil law. Lawyers outside of Hong Kong are always curious about Hong Kong’s legal system – does it follow mainland China or does it stick to the common law tradition? For the most part, in the commercial world, Hong Kong follows the common law tradition very faithfully. However, the law is a dynamic ecosystem and even within the common law tradition there is divergence, a necessity to reflect the cultural differences between the people and the place it serves to govern. Hong Kong is therefore, by default, also one of the most interesting places in which to practice law, because it is ever-changing, both culturally and politically.

After my gap year in Beijing, I returned to Hong Kong to start my training contract at a commercial law firm. Some young law students have trouble picking between the two streams: to be a solicitor or a barrister? For me however, the choice was always clear. I chose to become a solicitor mainly because I realized I enjoyed working closely in teams rather than individually. Arguably one of the most stressful but adrenaline-inducing experiences, is working intensely with others towards a common goal. It is an excellent bonding experience and that is unfortunately something that barristers do not get to enjoy. I have always been, and probably always will be, a more ‘business-minded’ person, and I find myself immensely enjoying the mental challenges that commercial private practice brings me.

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